President Obama, We Still Need You

Hi President Obama,

I heard that you are coming to Chicago this week to deliver a “farewell” address.  I can’t say that I’m not excited about that.  You have given us so many truly iconic moments over the past ten years; I’m sure this one will be amazing.  The only thing is that I can’t accept a “farewell” from you.  I can’t imagine how much it must have taken out of you and your family to lead the most powerful nation on earth as its first Black president.  But, I have to say, “we still need you.”  There’s a lot of work left undone. Our nation is in need of healing, particularly the Black community.

My dad used to have an issue with goodbyes.  He would tell us, “Don’t say ‘goodbye’…just ‘say see ya’ later’”.  What he intended to teach us is that just because we were leaving for the day or moving to a new place or experiencing whatever changes life brings, that if we were committed to one another and a common purpose and value system, then we would always find new opportunities for connection and collective work.  And he was right.

Foremost on my mind is the education of Black children in America.  It has been that way since I was 19 years old and barely out of my “selective enrollment” high school in the West Loop.  Most of the organizing work that I had done before that time was on school related issues, but I figured that was because I was actually in school at the time.

But, when I took up the charge of helping convince young people on the south side and in the south suburbs to register and vote for you in that ’04 Senate Primary, that’s when it began to hit home.  It was in that campaign office in the mini-mall on 55th Street that I began to take notice of 21 and 22-year old volunteers struggling to read campaign materials.  FullSizeRender.jpgI still remember the overwhelming sense of discouragement that came over me the day I realized that my twelve-year-old play sister was better equipped to order the chicken wings for the meeting from the JJ’s a few doors down than some of the young adults who would regularly come to lend a hand to the campaign.  Those young adults didn’t want to try to figure out how much to order and how much it would cost.  The math was too hard.  Walking the streets of Englewood, Roseland, Dolton and Chicago Heights, we would encounter so many people, barely older than I was then, who were barely literate and desperately uninformed about civics and government and how it impacted their daily lives.

We got a lot of young people to vote in that Senate Primary.  And you won the nomination and ultimately the Senate seat.  But, I understood from there that the cause of improving education for Black children was where I wanted to spend my professional energy and personal passion.

I know that you care about Black children in this country.  I know it from how I’ve seen you love your girls from little bitty ones to the young women they are today.  I know it from how you would stop into our little meetings on 55th Street; have some chicken, make some jokes and encourage a young cadre of volunteers (many of whom weren’t even old enough to vote for you).  I know it from how you pulled bright, innovative leaders into your Education Department and defended creative education reforms even when some of the most powerful members of the Democratic base didn’t totally agree.

Mr. President, you were an inspiration to me as a man and as a leader before anyone knew that you were going to become the President of the United States.  That little group of youth and young adults on the south side probably wasn’t 100% focused on your policy agenda.  But, we saw your passion.  We could sense the force of your will and desire to make life better for people like us.  We understood that you cared.

I believe you still care.

I believe that you care that 30% of Black students don’t graduate high school on time and only 40% of Black students who enter college finish their degree within six years.

I believe that you care that there is still a wide gap in proficiency and attainment in Math and Reading between Black students and their White counterparts.

I believe that you care that today’s Black child still starts school lagging significantly behind their peers from other cultural backgrounds in development skills such as receptive vocabulary, expressive vocabulary, matching, early counting, math, color knowledge, numbers, and shapes.

I know that the relationship is about to change.  The first Black president will hand over the White House to…well…another person.  But, I believe that there is a lot of power in being the first Black former President of the United States. I’m begging you to use that power to keep pushing for improvement in the Black community, especially on the key issue of education.  And I’m still committed to organizing at the grassroots to help build a better tomorrow for our community.

So, when you come to Chicago to give your last major speech as president, let’s not say “goodbye,” just “see ya later.”

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Chris Butler is first a husband and a dad. He has been involved across the spectrum of public engagement activities and has worked with a number of diverse constituencies in urban and suburban communities. He has also been involved in several political campaigns including his service as a youth and young adult coordinator for Barack Obama’s primary bid for U.S. Senate. Chris worked as deputy campaign manager and field director for A+ Illinois where he developed a strong, statewide field operation including over 500 organizations and 50,000 individuals around the state working to bring adequacy and equity to Illinois’ school funding system and as the director of advocacy and outreach at New Schools for Chicago, a leader in school reform in Chicago. Chris is a 2006 graduate of the Ministry Training Institute and holds a degree in civic and political engagement from Northeastern Illinois University.